Connecticut legislators held a public hearing last Thursday to debate new legislation that would guarantee paid family and medical leave for all Connecticut workers.

Democratic leadership in the Connecticut General Assembly has made passing the legislation their top priority this year. The proposed Senate bill and its counterpart in the state House of Representatives — both titled the Family and Medical Leave Act — would provide every employee with family and medical leave insurance, which would allow employees up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year. Both versions of the bill are currently in the drafting process.

Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, said that ensuring that all Connecticut workers receive paid family and medical leave has long been a major goal for the state’s Democratic legislators.

“I think it’s something we should move forward with in Connecticut,” Looney said. “This has been on the docket for a while and we’re just going to keep pushing it until it finally passes.”

The new legislation would replace existing state law, which mandates that only businesses with 50 or more employees offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Under the FMLA, employees would be required to pay into a central fund from which they could later draw if forced to take time off from work. Employers would not be responsible for covering the costs of paid leave.

Certain key details of the plan, such as the maximum leave time and maximum weekly benefit employees on leave could claim, have yet to be hashed out, Looney said. A paid leave bill introduced in the Senate last year would have set the maximum leave time at 12 weeks and the maximum weekly payment at $1,000.

Regardless of the specifics, opponents of the proposal see it as an example of needless government intervention that would hurt taxpayers, employees and businesses. Eric Gjede, a lawyer for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said that while he supports businesses voluntarily instituting paid leave programs, he opposes “inflexible, across-the-board-type” legislation obligating them to do so.

“This program simply would take a percentage of your pay and give it to the state, which isn’t particularly good at holding on to people’s money these days,” Gjede said. “The people who can least afford to be out of work now when they’re sick are going to have money taken from them regardless of whether they’re sick under this program.”

Instead of issuing requirements, Gjede said, the state should provide incentives for businesses to implement paid leave. He added that an incentive system would be both cheaper and more effective than imposing a mandate.

Despite opposition from many Republican members of the House and Senate, Democrats are hopeful that the bill will pass. Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, a sponsor of the bill, said he expects the vote to be close but still believes the bill will pass. The state Senate is equally split 17–17 this year and the House is the closest it has been in years, with 79 Democratic members and 72 Republican members.

The bill has personal importance to Lesser, who was diagnosed with cancer four and a half years ago and was forced to take time off from work, he said.

“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Lesser said. “I can only imagine how much more difficult it’s got to be for folks out there who have to deal with real serious family medical crises.”

Many advocacy groups have also been instrumental in pushing for the bill, including the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, which has been at the forefront of efforts to pass paid family and medical leave legislation since 2012. According to CWEALF Policy Manager Maddie Granato, the bill is integral to the organization’s mission of advocating for equal rights and opportunities for women, as issues of leave disproportionately impact women.

Although the bill has not been finalized, Granato says she hopes it will make leave “affordable, accessible and adequate” for Connecticut workers and businesses. In her mind, this would include a high wage replacement to ensure that employees actually take advantage of the program, coverage of a large range of jobs and circumstances and a period of leave of at least 12 weeks.

Only three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — offer paid family and medical leave.